By Jess Nicholas
Sept. 16, 2018
Where do you go in trying to analyze a game that finished up as a 62-7 beatdown? When the defeated opponent insists on changing mascots every couple of years and is currently promoting something called a “landshark?” When a team’s wide receiver corps refers to itself as the “NWO” while its defense is MIA?
There really isn’t much to say here in defense of this game, because it was barely a game. It was basically a story about strip mining as told in football terminology by a football team (Alabama) that could have named the score and made good on the promise.
Ole Miss came into this game with – what everyone thought was – a premier-level offense built around a solid offensive line and a dynamic wide receiver corps and triggered by a guy who was trying to prove he was more than a stunt-double Tua Tagovailoa. Instead, Alabama’s defense made Ole Miss one-dimensional, then slammed the door on the one dimension Ole Miss had left.
Ole Miss scored less than 30 seconds into the game thanks to a busted one-on-one coverage. Seven to oh. And then the Rebels proceeded to watch Alabama run off 62 unanswered points, along the way putting up a halftime score of 49-7.
Fins to the left, fins to the right, and Ole Miss was the only corpse in town.
This was an Ole Miss defense so bad, it was generationally bad. Fifty years into the future, old men in rocking chairs will put their grandsons on their knee and tell them about an Ole Miss defense so awful that it set football back fifty years into the past. Vanderbilt has fielded defenses where most of the defense were already grad students, half of them already answering to “Doctor,” and yet those defenses had more ability and composure than what Ole Miss put on the field Saturday.
This was a defense so bad that it might ought to affect Ole Miss’ eligibility for future membership in the conference.
But part of why it looked so bad was because Alabama made it look that bad. Landsharks, not so much. Try sand fleas. Irritating, ankle-biting … and they run for cover when the Tide rolls in.
Alabama once again dictated offensive pace via the left arm of Tagovailoa, who is now 13-for-13 on the year on third downs, and skill-position talent who were so much better than the defenders trying to cover them that if this was golf, the two teams would have been put in separate flights. Ole Miss just didn’t really belong on the same field.
Alabama also seemed to have fixed a handful of issues that had cropped up in the first two games of the year: blocking from the guard spots, a better upfield push from the defensive ends, more pass rush from the ends and outside linebackers. Most importantly, Alabama got in Ole Miss QB Jordan Ta’amu’s head early, and made him tentative. Once that happened, the fast-read, quick-strike capabilities of Ole Miss’ passing offense went away. And with those capabilities shelved, it didn’t take Alabama long to pull to a comfortable lead.
Alabama continues to display fantastic balance on offense, and if the defense continues to improve, especially when it has to face teams that can offer more in the running game than Ole Miss could, it’s hard to see Alabama running into strong headwinds until the postseason. On the other hand, reading too much into the thrashing of a team that might prove to be a mirage is potentially dangerous. Alabama can’t treat this game as anything more than just another step along the path.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Ole Miss:
1. Alabama’s defensive line negated the Ole Miss OL’s advantages. As a unit, Alabama’s defensive line probably played its best game of the year. Raekwon Davis, who had gotten off to a slow start, had his best game by far, and Quinnen Williams continues to disrupt the middle like a man possessed. Ole Miss center Sean Rawlings, who figures to be drafted in April, couldn’t handle Williams. Greg Little struggled with the combination of Isaiah Buggs and Anfernee Jennings, and the defensive line as a whole was too quick for Ole Miss’ guards. Pressure came too quickly for Ta’amu, and as a result, Ole Miss had to speed up the clock on its passing attack. It didn’t work out; Ta’amu went just 7-of-22 (31.8%) for 133 yards, 1 touchdown and 2 picks. He took four sacks, fumbled once and had his worst college game by a long shot.
2. Alabama’s edge players also responded with their best game to date. Jennings appeared to move more smoothly, although some of the improvement Alabama got from that position came from the lack of creativity Ole Miss showed with its running backs in the passing game. Jennings didn’t have to cover a back out of the backfield often, and being able to concentrate on going downhill simplified his responsibilities. Christian Miller, working from the strong side, had his best game in an Alabama uniform. He finished with 5 tackles, 2.5 sacks and disrupted Ole Miss’ rushing attack with regularity. Alabama will need him to continue playing at this level, especially with Terrell Lewis set to miss most of the year, if not all of it. Aside from the opening-play breakdown from CB Saivion Smith, Alabama’s cornerbacks played a superior game. Patrick Surtain Jr. replaced Smith and had a solid outing, but it was a breakout game from Trevon Diggs that really made the difference. Ole Miss couldn’t solve Diggs’ length at corner, and his physical play disrupted routes.
3. Hurts continues to progress in his new role as backup QB: Tagovailoa’s dominance of the position continues after a first half that saw the sophomore 11 of 15 passes (73.3%) for 191 yards, 2 scores and also run for 47 yards of 5 carries (9.4 avg.). Whether or not he suffered an episode of leg cramps at the end of the half was still unknown, even after Nick Saban’s postgame press conference; the end result was that Jalen Hurts got an extended period of time under center. Hurts’ performance against Louisville in the opener was shaky, but he improved substantially against Arkansas State, and then again against Ole Miss. Aside from the interception, a poor decision on his part, he didn’t play another bad snap all night. Hurts’ improvement is not only important for his own future, it’s necessary insurance against Tagovailoa taking damage while scrambling, given how much he likes to do it. It also took on added importance after watching third-team QB Mac Jones struggle with a few reads late in the game. What’s becoming clearer as the games tick by is that Hurts is likely not headed for a redshirt, as many thought he would be prior to the year, and is committed to this team and to being a quarterback for this team. His two touchdown passes in this game were both solid, and the TD pass to Jerry Jeudy was perfect. There’s no doubt Tua is the starter, but an effective Jalen Hurts as a backup makes things almost unfair for future opponents.
4. Special teams still causing digestive problems, but also show promise: Joseph Bulovas made two of three field goal attempts in this game but his miss on a 38-yarder wasn’t just by a little bit. Still, the fact every PAT – and there were eight of those, not an insignificant number – was right down the middle was encouraging after watching Austin Jones test the limits of the uprights the last two weeks. Bulovas’ biggest contribution was probably on kickoffs, as he is getting excellent height and hang time to go along with distance. Ole Miss’ kick return unit was completely neutered by Bulovas’ kicks. In the return game, Alabama continues to dominate; Josh Jacobs returned 2 kickoffs for 101 yards, while Jaylen Waddle had a punt return for 37 yards. Alabama was already leading the nation in kickoff returns coming in, and when the new rankings post Sunday, expect the Tide to be in the top 10 in both categories. Perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of special teams Saturday was watching Skyler DeLong punt twice late in the game, and noticing a hitch in his walk-up. DeLong didn’t hit either punt a long way, and if he’s going to have timing issues going forward, it doesn’t bode well in close SEC games down the stretch. This group was always going to be a work in progress in 2018, and that work continues on.
5. Defense builds additional – and much-needed – depth: Perhaps nowhere is it more appreciated than at middle linebacker, where redshirt junior Josh McMillon had a solid performance in relief of Mack Wilson. Wilson, who has gotten off to a rough and injury-plagued start in 2018, was hurt again in this game, and McMillon had to play early. McMillon isn’t the fastest or most athletic linebacker on the Tide roster, but he knows where to go and is better than average against the run. He looked good both in relief of Wilson early and in leading the 2s late in the game. In addition to McMillon, Alabama got a good effort from reserve defensive linemen Phidarian Mathis, LaBryan Ray and Stephon Wynn Jr. in his first action of the year. Eyabi Anoma also flashed some ability at outside linebacker late in the game, and once he begins to play with confidence, he’s going to be hard to contain. Jamey Mosley had another solid outing. It wasn’t just the defense that made strides in this game, but depth was a greater concern on that side of the ball and McMillon’s emergence – he had 3 tackles including one for a loss – was most welcome.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN